In the midst of last Thursday’s rain and cold, I was tempted to drive my cozy Buick instead of taking the Lynx light rail to the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art in uptown Charlotte. I stayed local for my first travel destination, excited to visit the first 20th century modern art museum in the Southeast just a few miles away from home. Despite the appeal of my car’s seat warmers and covered parking uptown, I headed to the Tyvola light rail stop for a leisurely ride via South Boulevard. I spotted the first sculpture of the day underneath the Tyvola station platform, one of many art works constructed along the LYNX rail line. The “Reknowned Dwelling” sculpture by artist Dennis Oppeheim blends home construction elements such as stairs and fences.
I first fell in love with modern art when I lived in New York for a summer during college and sought refuge in the air-conditioned galleries of the Museum of Modern Art. I became fascinated with the paintings of artists like Dali, Picasso and Pollock that evoked new thoughts and emotions with every visit. The Bechtler Museum opened its doors on January 2, and is part of the uptown Wells Fargo Cultural Center that includes the Gantt Center for African-American Arts and Culture. The museum’s benefactor Andreas Bechtler, a current Charlotte resident and artist from Switzerland, donated his family collection of more than 1,400 modern art works including Warhol, Picasso, Miro and Degas.
10 stops later, I exited the train at the 3rd street station and took the elevator down to the street level. From a few blocks north on Tryon St. in the icy rain, I spotted the magnificent mirrored-tile statue that guards the museum’s plaza. The giant Firebird statue, by French-American artist and Bechtler family friend Niki de Saint Phalle, started buzz about the museum’s upcoming opening when unveiled in November. Swiss architect Mario Botta designed the museum (and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), a work of art in itself with a towering steel and glass atrium, and terra cotta (unglazed red clay) tile exterior. Excited to snap a quick photo of the statue and museum entrance, I watched my camera flash a battery alert and promptly die. Nice.
The Bechtler museum staff was cordial enough to appear unphased at my wet and frizzy hair and direct me towards the coat room where I shed my dripping jacket. My $8 admission included an audio guide, which I always enjoy to learn the back story on artists and works. The open layout of 1st floor of the museum includes the gift shop, café (offers free wi-fi), and a few art works including Bechtler family portraits painted by Andy Warhol.
The 2nd floor gallery features paintings and sculpture by married artists and Bechtler family friends Jean Tinguely and Niki de Saint Phalle, and flows into a video gallery showing museum grand opening and construction footage. Tinguely composed his dynamic sculptures with found objects and working motors; while de Saint Phalle’s pieces blend bright hues and female archetypes. Luckily, I overlapped with a tour group and got to see Tinguely’s “Santana” sculpture in action when a museum tour guide flipped on its motor. An outdoor sculpture terrace is also connected to the second floor gallery, providing an open air space to contemplate “Women Grasshopper” by Germaine Richier and two other works.
A small gallery on the 3rd floor features the Bechtlers’ many works, such as bronze statues, by Alberto Giacometti, sculptor, painter and a close family friend according to my audio guide. At the center of the gallery is a living room mock-up on a raised platform featuring furniture created by (Alberto’s brother) Diego Giacometti. I admit to thinking the furniture display was a waiting room for the museum offices, but thankfully did not try to sit on anything. Upon reaching the 4th floor, I was surprised at the vast space of the main gallery displaying works by Warhol, George Braque, Picasso, Miro, Degas and many others. I could have spent hours just on the 4th floor, reflecting on Marilyn Monroe’s gaze in a Warhol portrait and envisioning the Bechtler’s life in the company of artists like Joan Miro.
The Bechtler offers plenty of appeal for all art lovers – present and future. The museum’s architecture, along with the Gantt Museum, creates a stunning contrast to the sleek design of uptown’s conservative office towers. It is a must-see attraction for visitors to Charlotte, and a spot for Charlotteans to find beauty, inspiration or a reflective escape. This is the kind of museum where you can get lost in the privacy of its galleries, lose track of time and take a break from the real world where shapes and colors are not so clearly defined.
The museum is located at 420 South Tryon St. (intersection of 1st & Tryon) in Charlotte, NC
Web site: www.bechtler.org